Recognizing Diseases in Caged Birds

All owners of caged birds must understand that birds tend to ‘hide" signs of illness. Birds can compensate for serious internal disease in such a way that they appear healthy externally. It is theorized that evolution has ‘taught’ birds to hide signs of illness to avoid being harassed and possibly killed by other birds in the same flock.

Because of this disease-masking tendency, by the time a bird owner recognizes illness in a pet bird, the bird may have been sick for 1-2 weeks. Therefore, one cannot afford to take a "wait and see" approach and hope the bird improves. Be observant and act promptly. Learn to look for subtle signs of illness, and take special note of changes in the routine and habits of your pet bird. Seek veterinary assistance promptly if you suspect illness.

Following is a list of signs of illness easily recognizable by the concerned bird owner. Alone or in combination, they signify potential illness in your bird.

Signs of Illness

  • Discharge from the eyes
  • Change in clarity or color of the eyes
  • Closing of the eyes
  • Swelling around the eyes
  • Discharge from the nostrils
  • Obstructed nostrils
  • Soiling feathers on head or around nostrils
  • Sneezing
  • Inability to manipulate food within the mouth
  • Reduced appetite or not eating at all
  • Fluffed-up feathers
  • Inactivity
  • Droopy wings
  • Decreased preening and feather maintenance
  • Break in the bird’s routine
  • Changed or no vocalization (may be serious)
  • Weight loss
  • Equilibrium problems (very serious!)
  • Inability to perch (bird on cage bottom)
  • Limping or not bearing weight on 1 leg
  • Swollen feet or joints
  • Change in quality or quantity of droppings
  • Open-mouthed breathing when at rest (very serious!)
  • Tail pumping (rhythmic back and forth motion of the tail when at rest)
  • Lumps or masses anywhere on the body
  • Bleeding (always an emergency situation, regard-less of the origin)

If you suspect illness in your bird, do not delay in making an appointment with your veterinarian. Either transport your bird to the doctor’s office within its cage or use some other suitable container (smaller cage, pet carrier, box). Never visit the veterinarian with your bird perched on your shoulder. This method does not provide enough protection for your pet. Whatever container you choose should be covered to help minimize the stress to your sick bird during its visit. If you take your bird the veterinarian in its own cage, do not clean it first. The material you discard could represent valuable information to the veterinarian.

After a sick bird has been initially treated by a veterinarian, home care is very important. Sick birds must be encouraged to eat and must be kept warm. Illness can cause significant weight loss in a matter of days, especially if the bird stops eating. If this happens, the patient must be hospitalized. However, even a sick bird with a "healthy appetite" can lose substantial weight because of the energy drain caused by the illness.

As a general rule of thumb, any caged bird that appears ill to its owner is seriously ill. One day of illness for a bird is roughly equivalent to 7 days of illness for a person. The tendency for pet bird owners in this situation is to first seek advice from pet stores and there purchase antibiotics and other medication for their sick pet bird. With very few exceptions, these non-prescribed products are worthless. They allow the sick bird to become even sicker, and greatly compromise the results of diagnostic tests that the veterinarian may require to properly diagnose and treat the patient. Contact your veterinarian at the slightest sign of illness in your bird.

Supplemental heat (space heater, heated room, heating pad under the cage bottom or wrapped around the cage, heat lamp) is vital for a sick bird. It is especially necessary if the bird’s feathers are fluffed up. Provide just enough heat so that the feather posture appears normal. Overheating the patient must be avoided at all costs. Heat-stressed birds pant, hold their wings away from the body, depress their feathers close to the body, and appear anxious and agitated. Heat stroke and death can result if the bird continues to be overheated. The environmental temperature should be kept at 80-95 F for sick birds. The patient’s cage should be covered (top, back and sides) during its convalescence.

If a bird refuses to crack seeds or eat other foods that require a great deal of work, offer hulled or sprouted seeds or other "easy" foods, such as warm cereal, cooked rice, cooked pasta, vegetables, applesauce and other fruit sauces, and peanut butter. Remember, birds that refuse to eat must be hospital-ized. Few people can successfully force-feed a sick bird at home.

Droppings Can Reflect Illness

A bird’s droppings reflect its state of health. Therefore, it is a good idea to pay close attention to them. A bird’s digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts empty into a common receptacle called the cloaca and the products from them are expelled through the vent, which is the opening at the bird’s ‘south end.’

A normal dropping may contain excretory products from the intestinal tract, urinary tract or both. The fecal (stool) portion of the dropping should be green or brown. The color is influenced by the bird’s diet. Normal droppings are formed into a coil, reflecting the size and diameter of the intestine. Along with the fecal portion is a variable amount of uric acid or urate (‘whitewash’) and urine (‘water’). The urates are usually in a blob or mixed in with the feces and should be white or beige.

The urine portion soaks the papers on the cage bottom for a variable distance beyond the perimeter of the dropping. It is important to regularly observe the amount of urine being excreted in the droppings. For this reason, such material as crushed corn cobs or walnut shells should not be used on the cage bottom. It is impossible to evaluate each dropping when these materials cover the cage bottom. These materials also tend to promote rapid growth of disease-causing fungi on the cage bottom, especially when wet with urine or water. Newspapers or paper towels are preferable.

Smaller caged birds (finches, canaries, parakeets) tend to have an individual blob of fecal material with an accompanying amount of urate. The amount of urine excreted is usually quite small.

A bird has diarrhea when the fecal portion of the dropping lacks form (‘pea soup’). Diarrhea is not very common in birds. A dropping with a normal fecal portion but a large amount of urine around it represents a watery dropping (polyuria), not diarrhea! All diarrheic droppings appear loose, but not all loose or watery droppings constitute diarrhea. This Is a very important distinction. Polyuric droppings may indicate disease (diabetes or kidney disease), but more often they result from increased water consumption or consumption of large amounts of fleshy fruits and vegetables.

The color, consistency and amount of each component of the droppings of normal caged birds frequently change, depending on the type of food consumed, amount of water consumed, amount of stress experienced, mood changes, and other factors. Abnormal droppings typically remain abnormal in appearance during the entire course of a bird’s illness.